Nicolae Ceausescu was a contradiction in terms: a hardline communist who flirted with the West. But 20 years ago Romania ran out of patience with its leader, says Peter Bills

Nicolae Ceausescu infuriated Moscow with an international policy which refused to follow, slavishly, the Eastern bloc’s approach during the Cold War.

He was the man who created in his own country such draconian laws that any man or woman, married or single, who did not have children by the age of 25, was taxed an extra 20% of their income.

A ban on abortion and divorce, which created an inevitable population explosion, led to untold numbers of unwanted children, many of whom were abandoned and lived in the streets while others were locked up for years in mental institutions. The images of those incarcerated continue to haunt all who glimpsed them on silent, tragic newsreels.

He visited North Korea and came home determined to transport some of the lunatic policies of that country’s dictator into his own land. To that end, he ordered the widespread destruction of numerous old, historic towns and buildings for a Stalinesque drive towards urbanisation.

But when Nicolae Ceausescu smiled, the West seemed beguiled. He even managed to inveigle himself into Buckingham Palace to take tea with the Queen. And he helped set up negotiations between President Nixon and the Chinese in the 1970s through his efforts of mediation as an international broker of recognised impartiality. He would also be involved in the discussions leading up to the visit of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Israel in 1977.

Uniquely, Romania was the only country in the world which retained links with both the Palestine Liberation Organisation and their hated enemy, Israel.

Of course, Ceausescu’s own Romanian people never benefitted from his intrigues. While he created, Hitler-style, grandiose buildings in his capital, Bucharest – one of which, The People’s House, now the Palace of the Parliament, is the world’s second largest administrative building after the Pentagon – his people starved.

It is easy to label Ceausescu some kind of basket case. But the truth is, he was a lot smarter than that – a wily character who juggled the balls of the international court in his hands for more years than either Moscow or Washington would care to admit.

Perhaps in only one way did the Romanian dictator adhere to Eastern European type. A brutal state security organisation – the much-feared Securitate – underpinned Ceausescu’s ruthless regime.

Ceausescu was a contradiction in terms because, at times, he followed a policy for a country deeply embedded behind the Iron Curtain which ran contrary to Moscow’s commands.

In the 1960s, he risked the fury of the Russian bear by telling the Soviet leaders to their faces that Romania would play no further active part in the Warsaw Pact – even though it remained in theory a member.

When forces from that Pact stormed into Czechoslovakia in 1968 and put a brutal end to Alexander Dubcek’s Prague spring of liberalisation, no Romanian troops were involved. Indeed, Ceausescu went so far as to condemn the invasion, further incensing Moscow. To further tweak the bear’s whiskers, Ceausescu ordered his Romanian sportsmen and women to compete in the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, one of just three Communist countries to defy Moscow’s ban on participation. His frequent official visits to the great western capitals – Washington, London, Paris and Madrid – helped underline his faux creed, as a reforming communist. But back at home, his people grew poorer and poorer. The leader of his country since 1965 after which he changed the ruling party’s name from the ‘Romanian Worker’s Party’ to the ‘Romanian Communist Party’, Ceausescu took the title of president in 1974.

But his road to the top of the political tree had started long before. Born in the village of Scornicesti, Olt County, Ceausescu moved to Bucharest at the age of 11 to work in the factories. He was the son of a peasant and was first arrested, in 1933, for agitating during a strike. He was arrested and imprisoned again in 1940 and, in 1943, he was transferred to an internment camp where he shared a cell with Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, the future Romanian leader, becoming his protege. After the war he served as secretary of the Communist Youth, and when the Communists took over, he became Agriculture Minister, then served as Deputy Minister of the Armed Forces under Gheorghiu-Dej, before eventually succeeding him. But what made Ceausescu so hard to read was his willingness to flout Moscow’s official line and embrace the West whilst ruthlessly rejecting any liberation at home for his own people. No opposition whatever was allowed and the media was totally controlled. Opponents simply disappeared – many into mental institutions where they were left to go slowly mad.

But even for those who were supposedly ‘free’, life in Romania became increasingly barbaric. Blood transfusions were often done with a single syringe for as many as 50 people, guaranteeing the spread of HIV/Aids. The ban on both abortion and contraception ensured a flourishing black market of abortionists.

Encouraged by the hardline model he witnessed at work in Kim-Il-Sung’s North Korea in 1971, Ceausescu set to work to create a similar state, apparently blissfully unaware that his reforms would move Romania well to the left of the arch Communist state in Moscow.

Perhaps the greatest contradiction of Nicolae Ceausescu’s life was that so sharp an operator failed completely to see the turning of the tide in his own region.

As the 1980s brought a growing tide of dissent at the Iron Curtain, Mikhael Gorbachev’s ascent to power in Moscow set off alarm bells in many parts of the Eastern bloc – but not, it seems, Bucharest.

When student protests started in the city of Timisoara, Ceausescu seemed uniquely unprepared for what was to come. Like King Canute trying to turn back the waves, he tried to make a speech in what is now known as ‘Revolution Square’ in central Bucharest, but was booed and shouted down by protestors. His expression of complete shock and bemusement fostered the growing dissent.

By the next day, it was clear that events were spiralling out of control. As the mob swelled, their rage obvious, the dictator and his wife fled the city by helicopter. They began a desperate escape by stages across the country until finally being ordered to land the helicopter by the Army, who had closed down Romanian airspace.

Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena were hauled before a kangaroo court and tried for genocide and embezzling state funds. The verdict was inevitable, the sentence likewise. It is said 250 army personnel volunteered to raise their guns against the couple, when the sentence was passed.

And so, on Christmas Day 1989, the hated couple, neither tied up nor blind-folded, were hustled against the wall of an army barracks. His wife, snarling scorn to the last, is said to have cried “Look Nicolae, they are going to shoot us like dogs.” And so they did.

It was the best Christmas present Romanians had ever received.

Akmal Shaikh got a raw deal from his co-religionists. Not from the West, mark you.

Is it just my imagination or is there a distinct lack of Christmas spirit out there this year.

As the Chuckle Brothers act gives way to its less cordial successor, 2010 will dawn as a make-or-break year for the Northern Ireland parties.

It’s the year 2012 and time for your local evening television news on Channel Three. “Oh sorry, I made a mistake,” says the announcer. “There isn’t any news tonight and there won’t be in future.

This was always going to be a special year in a GAA context. After all, the 125th anniversary celebrations were destined to take pride of place in an extensive programme of fixtures and events that made it one of the busiest years in the history of the association.

There is little doubt Kauto Star will win the King George VI Chase for a fourth time at Kempton on Boxing Day.

10? 12? 15? A figure matching the exact population of Donaghadee? Who knows what Tiger Woods’ tally will be by the time you read this but, as they say in Nuu Yoirk comedies, enough already!

The Chancellor was right yesterday to dismiss the idea of a High Pay Commission. His phraseology was characteristically mild: he was “not persuaded” of his merits.

Joe is not rich in terms of the figures bandied about these days; though many of the bitter victims of Gordon Brown’s crunch, who have lost jobs and even homes, would think he is.

Up at Stormont they’re still obsessing about policing and justice. On the streets it’s also an issue — but only in a much, much more literal sense.

Read the article on Belfast Telegraph

The day the dictator died

Nicolae Ceausescu was a contradiction in terms: a hardline communist who flirted with the West. But 20 years ago Romania ran out of patience with its leader, says Peter Bills

Nicolae Ceausescu infuriated Moscow with an international policy which refused to follow, slavishly, the Eastern bloc’s approach during the Cold War.

He was the man who created in his own country such draconian laws that any man or woman, married or single, who did not have children by the age of 25, was taxed an extra 20% of their income.

A ban on abortion and divorce, which created an inevitable population explosion, led to untold numbers of unwanted children, many of whom were abandoned and lived in the streets while others were locked up for years in mental institutions. The images of those incarcerated continue to haunt all who glimpsed them on silent, tragic newsreels.

He visited North Korea and came home determined to transport some of the lunatic policies of that country’s dictator into his own land. To that end, he ordered the widespread destruction of numerous old, historic towns and buildings for a Stalinesque drive towards urbanisation.

But when Nicolae Ceausescu smiled, the West seemed beguiled. He even managed to inveigle himself into Buckingham Palace to take tea with the Queen. And he helped set up negotiations between President Nixon and the Chinese in the 1970s through his efforts of mediation as an international broker of recognised impartiality. He would also be involved in the discussions leading up to the visit of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Israel in 1977.

Uniquely, Romania was the only country in the world which retained links with both the Palestine Liberation Organisation and their hated enemy, Israel.

Of course, Ceausescu’s own Romanian people never benefitted from his intrigues. While he created, Hitler-style, grandiose buildings in his capital, Bucharest – one of which, The People’s House, now the Palace of the Parliament, is the world’s second largest administrative building after the Pentagon – his people starved.

It is easy to label Ceausescu some kind of basket case. But the truth is, he was a lot smarter than that – a wily character who juggled the balls of the international court in his hands for more years than either Moscow or Washington would care to admit.

Perhaps in only one way did the Romanian dictator adhere to Eastern European type. A brutal state security organisation – the much-feared Securitate – underpinned Ceausescu’s ruthless regime.

Ceausescu was a contradiction in terms because, at times, he followed a policy for a country deeply embedded behind the Iron Curtain which ran contrary to Moscow’s commands.

In the 1960s, he risked the fury of the Russian bear by telling the Soviet leaders to their faces that Romania would play no further active part in the Warsaw Pact – even though it remained in theory a member.

When forces from that Pact stormed into Czechoslovakia in 1968 and put a brutal end to Alexander Dubcek’s Prague spring of liberalisation, no Romanian troops were involved. Indeed, Ceausescu went so far as to condemn the invasion, further incensing Moscow. To further tweak the bear’s whiskers, Ceausescu ordered his Romanian sportsmen and women to compete in the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, one of just three Communist countries to defy Moscow’s ban on participation. His frequent official visits to the great western capitals – Washington, London, Paris and Madrid – helped underline his faux creed, as a reforming communist. But back at home, his people grew poorer and poorer. The leader of his country since 1965 after which he changed the ruling party’s name from the ‘Romanian Worker’s Party’ to the ‘Romanian Communist Party’, Ceausescu took the title of president in 1974.

But his road to the top of the political tree had started long before. Born in the village of Scornicesti, Olt County, Ceausescu moved to Bucharest at the age of 11 to work in the factories. He was the son of a peasant and was first arrested, in 1933, for agitating during a strike. He was arrested and imprisoned again in 1940 and, in 1943, he was transferred to an internment camp where he shared a cell with Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, the future Romanian leader, becoming his protege. After the war he served as secretary of the Communist Youth, and when the Communists took over, he became Agriculture Minister, then served as Deputy Minister of the Armed Forces under Gheorghiu-Dej, before eventually succeeding him. But what made Ceausescu so hard to read was his willingness to flout Moscow’s official line and embrace the West whilst ruthlessly rejecting any liberation at home for his own people. No opposition whatever was allowed and the media was totally controlled. Opponents simply disappeared – many into mental institutions where they were left to go slowly mad.

But even for those who were supposedly ‘free’, life in Romania became increasingly barbaric. Blood transfusions were often done with a single syringe for as many as 50 people, guaranteeing the spread of HIV/Aids. The ban on both abortion and contraception ensured a flourishing black market of abortionists.

Encouraged by the hardline model he witnessed at work in Kim-Il-Sung’s North Korea in 1971, Ceausescu set to work to create a similar state, apparently blissfully unaware that his reforms would move Romania well to the left of the arch Communist state in Moscow.

Perhaps the greatest contradiction of Nicolae Ceausescu’s life was that so sharp an operator failed completely to see the turning of the tide in his own region.

As the 1980s brought a growing tide of dissent at the Iron Curtain, Mikhael Gorbachev’s ascent to power in Moscow set off alarm bells in many parts of the Eastern bloc – but not, it seems, Bucharest.

When student protests started in the city of Timisoara, Ceausescu seemed uniquely unprepared for what was to come. Like King Canute trying to turn back the waves, he tried to make a speech in what is now known as ‘Revolution Square’ in central Bucharest, but was booed and shouted down by protestors. His expression of complete shock and bemusement fostered the growing dissent.

By the next day, it was clear that events were spiralling out of control. As the mob swelled, their rage obvious, the dictator and his wife fled the city by helicopter. They began a desperate escape by stages across the country until finally being ordered to land the helicopter by the Army, who had closed down Romanian airspace.

Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena were hauled before a kangaroo court and tried for genocide and embezzling state funds. The verdict was inevitable, the sentence likewise. It is said 250 army personnel volunteered to raise their guns against the couple, when the sentence was passed.

And so, on Christmas Day 1989, the hated couple, neither tied up nor blind-folded, were hustled against the wall of an army barracks. His wife, snarling scorn to the last, is said to have cried “Look Nicolae, they are going to shoot us like dogs.” And so they did.

It was the best Christmas present Romanians had ever received.

Akmal Shaikh got a raw deal from his co-religionists. Not from the West, mark you.

Is it just my imagination or is there a distinct lack of Christmas spirit out there this year.

As the Chuckle Brothers act gives way to its less cordial successor, 2010 will dawn as a make-or-break year for the Northern Ireland parties.

It’s the year 2012 and time for your local evening television news on Channel Three. “Oh sorry, I made a mistake,” says the announcer. “There isn’t any news tonight and there won’t be in future.

This was always going to be a special year in a GAA context. After all, the 125th anniversary celebrations were destined to take pride of place in an extensive programme of fixtures and events that made it one of the busiest years in the history of the association.

There is little doubt Kauto Star will win the King George VI Chase for a fourth time at Kempton on Boxing Day.

10? 12? 15? A figure matching the exact population of Donaghadee? Who knows what Tiger Woods’ tally will be by the time you read this but, as they say in Nuu Yoirk comedies, enough already!

The Chancellor was right yesterday to dismiss the idea of a High Pay Commission. His phraseology was characteristically mild: he was “not persuaded” of his merits.

Joe is not rich in terms of the figures bandied about these days; though many of the bitter victims of Gordon Brown’s crunch, who have lost jobs and even homes, would think he is.

Up at Stormont they’re still obsessing about policing and justice. On the streets it’s also an issue — but only in a much, much more literal sense.

Read the article on Belfast Telegraph

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